Reviewed by Molly Finn
Some years ago, during a spell of back trouble, I spent half an hour being wheeled around an airport in a wheelchair. For a few minutes I was alone, parked in the wheelchair in a busy lobby. The few minutes were memorable because they gave me a glimpse into the world of people whose disabilities show, are there for all to see, to pity, to comment on, to ridicule. Almost everyone who walked by looked twice; many stared. With no excuse beyond curiosity, strangers addressed me, usually using loud voices and very simplified language that showed they assumed my difficulties were mental as well as physical. Indeed, I felt that if this were to continue, my mental difficulties would soon outweigh my physical ones as I tried to sort out which was the real me-the wretch in the wheelchair or the complicated, intelligent, sturdy, and resourceful person I knew myself to be.
I recalled this incident when I read The Celibacy of Felix Greenspan, an almost certainly autobiographical novel by Lionel Abrahams, a South African poet who was born with cerebral palsy. On the jacket of the book is a reproduction of a haunting portrait in oils, which I take to be a portrait of the author as an intense, brooding, bearded young man, arms crossed in his lap, one large hand seemingly relaxed, the other in a fist. The fist is also reproduced on the spine of the book. Is it a fist of anger and resentment stemming from a life filled with trials, misunderstanding, and prejudice? Is it a fist brought on by an uncontrollable muscle spasm? Is it a fist of determination, a symbol of the strength, the will of a man who learned to walk only after years of treatments, "miracle cures," and striving and who, with a mixture of innocence, cleverness, and a little spite, got himself through a childhood spent mostly in a hospital that sounds like an English boarding school, complete with bullying, betrayal, and anti-Semitism?
None of the questions raised by this powerful little book has an easy answer. In the matter of the fist, the answer to all three questions is probably "yes." The author is a poet, with a poet's ability to compress, to make symbols and images, to intermingle all the aspects of a subject into a web that can't be untangled. The title of the book is an ironic comment on the way Felix's life has been affected (or determined or definitively shaped or distorted or limited) by his physical handicap. Felix has definitely not chosen to be celibate. The book consists of seventeen named "stories" told by Felix in the third person. Each of them could stand alone as a meditation on some aspect of Felix's life, but together they form a unified portrait of a remarkable sensibility. "Miracles" begins with Felix going home to be cured by an Australian lady doctor, "but the lady doctor did not cure him because she suddenly had to go back to Australia." Next he went to "a German doctor called a quack," then to "a clever specialist," then to a faith healer. When he finally walked, he did it on his own. Walking down a street triumphant over his achievement, he heard someone say, "Aw, shame!" "What's she saying shame for?" asked Felix. "I can walk." "Yes, you can walk," said his mother. "But don't you realize, you're still not normal?"
In "Perfection" Felix tries to learn to control the unruliness of both his body and his personality. He is plagued by seizures, by involuntary body movements, by his inability to walk. He is angry, with a violent temper. He hates the boys who bully him, "scared all the time, and ashamed of the things they despised him for (except being Jewish)." Into his life comes Skipper Ross, the "teacher of perfection," who tells Felix, "You have to overcome the limitations of yourself and supersede your passions. That is the road to perfection." Skipper's mind-over- matter exercises and sermons inspire Felix to be constructive and focus on what he can do. But we see how deep this goes at the end of the chapter when Skipper tells Felix he has a "strong feeling that you are ready for something important" and gives Felix a day alone to figure out what it might be. "Something important . . . something wonderful," Felix says to himself. "It could only be bodily perfection."
In "Knowledge," perhaps the central chapter of the book, Felix recognizes his vocation and is accepted by his beloved writing teacher Johan de Waal as a "novice of the creative brotherhood . . . endowed with wings with which to soar above whatever made existence mundane, solemn, dull, ordinary." Feeling liberated from the shackles of his physical handicap, Felix's ideal is no longer physical perfection. But gaining knowledge beyond the facts he learns from his encyclopedia introduces him to a distressing array of life's complexities and ambiguities.
A problem, mordantly described in "Special Arrangements," is caused by well-meaning efforts of others to make life easier for Felix that actually constitute ruinous meddling. Special arrangements of this kind derail his incipient love affairs. For years Felix lives in the possibility that one girl or another will take him as a lover, but one after another they turn to him for friendship and to others for love. Felix's "Moment" finally comes when he is twenty-seven, an ecstasy in which "the scent of roses, the pleasure he took in the keenest lyrical poetry, came to his mind." But "when his orgasm came. . . he tried to suppress the convulsions, the silly giggling, snorting, hooting that came from the nets and knots of his nerves and not from his will."
The six celibate years that follow his brief love affair end when Felix goes to Europe with friends and decides that only prostitutes can help him out of "his personal emergency." After many humiliating efforts, Felix finds someone who doesn't refuse him and he even manages to bring some vibrancy into the sordid transaction. On his way home through a midnight Paris bursting with life, Felix eats a "vast scalding bowl" of onion soup and picks his way through the bustling markets "beyond all fear, exulting amid the fruits of the earth."
Felix never comes to terms with his inability to find a lasting love or with the disparity between the self he knows and the person others see- but then, how many of us do come to terms with that? This dense, thoughtful, and, in the end, brilliant little novel sharply and movingly poses the question.